Modern Classic Used Cars with Character, Excitement and Affordability
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These hot cars could be the perfect buy for someone willing to scour the market for a deal and put up with a few mechanical headaches in exchange for a great driver's car.
Pontiac G8 GXP
PROS: While the G8's recommended price is around $29,000, we've seen dealers asking in the low $40,000 range. The former isn't nuts, but the latter is. Still, we have to recommend this car. You'll find a Corvette-purposed, 415-hp 6.2-liter V8 mated to either a six-speed auto or, our preference, a six-speed manual. Some magazines recorded 0-to-60 times of 4.5 seconds, and skidpad figures right around 0.9 g's. That's on par with some very elite company—cars that will easily cost you well over 40 grand, so it's no surprise some sellers think it's worth that much. And this is a nice, roomy car, too, with Audi-A8-like space (if not quite that level of panache).
CONS: Sorry, but there's no way this Pontiac is going to hold its value in the long run. Look at the resale of any modern car from an "orphaned" brand and you're going to see stone-like drop-offs. There are exceptions, such as muscle cars, but are you going to hold on to your G8 for three decades to find out?
Ford F-150 SVT Lightning
PROS: The second-generation Lightning was a fire breather, putting out 380 hp and a menacing 450 lb-ft of torque from its 5.4-liter blown V8. The sticky Goodyear Eagle F1s proved up to the task of keeping the truck straight—mostly—and if you drove one on the track you would be stunned by how relatively smooth such a big vehicle could be. The ride was lowered 2 inches out front and an inch in the rear versus the stock F-150.
CONS: The Lightning had a series of engine weaknesses, from problems with the supercharger to some minor flaws that led to recalls, though nothing was so dire that it kept these trucks from maintaining a serious following. Other concerns: The Flareside look seems quite dated, and let's not even discuss what it's like to drive a Lightning on a wet or snowy road.
Ford Contour SVT, 1999
PROS: While Ford's SVT team tweaked a lot of Focuses and Mustangs and F-150s in its day, the Contour was a short-lived project. So you'll have a tough time spotting one of these, let alone finding one that hasn't been beaten down. Still, given the specs, it may be worth digging, because the SVT folks stuffed a small 200-hp 2.5-liter V6 under the hood of the four-door Contour, swapped in four-wheel disc brakes and altered the suspension to tighten cornering. Ford boasted that the car put out more horsepower per liter than the BMW M3 of the same era, but that M3 would likely set you back roughly three times the Contour's price.
CONS: Ford only made about 11,000 Contour SVTs. And unfortunately, their original owners may not have seen the upside in keeping them pristine. As with any car where the base model is merely vanilla transportation, the "hotter" version tends to get flogged.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
PROS: You'll note that the heavy discount you typically see on a used Jeep isn't evident here. That's troubling to some, but you're shopping for an SUV with monster potential, a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 rated at 420 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque. Speed costs and, in this instance, we're inclined to think the SRT8 Jeep Grand Cherokee is still a bargain. It handles surprisingly well on its 20-inchers, and the Brembos haul it down from blistering speeds with ease. Talk about a sleeper: Most people won't know that your grocery getter can smoke sports cars costing $70,000 or more and even chase them through your neighborhood's local S-turns. That guy in the Cayenne has no idea you're coming.
CONS: Jeep doesn't have the best rep for reliability, and we'd have this hot rod thoroughly gone over by our own mechanic before plunking down the considerable cash most sellers want. Also, gas prices aren't coming down, and with 11 city/14 highway fuel economy, you're going to be your local service station's very best friend.
Chevrolet Cobalt SS Turbo
PROS: The turbo version of the Cobalt was a much better way to get some scoot into this econobox than Chevy's earlier supercharged models. It came on a smaller-displacement 2.0-liter (versus a 2.4-liter) motor so the car was a bit lighter, and with 260 hp it was plenty fast. All told, the turbo got 55 more horsepower than the supercharged model. The sport-tuned suspension also delivered serious cornering grip, and the Cobalt even came with disc rotors sourced from Brembo.
CONS: There just aren't many of these to be found, as coupes (from 2008) or as sedans (from 2009). Plus, its five- rather than six-speed gearbox can lead to a buzzy cockpit in a car that wasn't especially quiet to begin with. Compared to the new Cruze, which feels solid all around, the Cobalt feels second-rate—from the pure fit of the doors to the bolster of the seats. And GM knew it; the carmaker felt there was zero brand equity in the name, and started over for the Cruze.
Acura RSX Type-S, 2005
PROS: Acura hasn't explored the lower-end sports car market for quite a while now, and neither has parent company Honda. But the RSX Type-S makes us hunger for them to get back in the game. The car's beautifully revving i-VTEC (intelligent variable valve control) engine with dual-phase cams delivers more muscle at higher rpm. It made this an incredibly fun coupe with serious zip at the top end, even though total output was only 210 hp. That might seem meek compared to the likes of Subaru WRXs, but the RSX Type-S was never meant to win stoplight races. It was meant to be light and fun and just speedy enough, and at that mission it was certainly successful. It came with one of the most beautiful shifting six-speed manual gearboxes ever made. Even BMW could've learned something from what Acura had here. It was fairly frugal, too, with 27 city/33 highway mileage.
CONS: Shop with caution. Racers have beaten up most of the Type-S cars you can find on the market. These are tough, reliable cars, but nothing's bulletproof, especially not in the face of flashed chips, suspension mods and other alterations that will lead to bent frames, cracked cylinder heads and fried ECUs.
Saturn Sky Red Line, 2007
PROS: The Sky Red Line kicked out 260 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, and the rear-wheel-drive two-door clothtop could scoot to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds—making it meaner than the MR2, not to mention any Miata.
CONS: Saturn was finally hitting its stride with cars like this when GM axed the brand. And buying from a "dead" limb on the GM tree should give you pause. Yes, GM is honoring warranties and they can easily service Saturns and Pontiacs. But it's one thing if you're already a Saturn owner—quite another to be seeking out such a car.